Have you ever noticed how many hundreds of books are written about being an effective manager and how few are written about being an effective employee? Just do a quick scan of Amazon’s pages or the shelves of your neighborhood bookstore. They’re stocked high with the management secrets of Attila the Hun, Machiavelli, Abraham Lincoln, or your favorite winning athletic coach, business executive, political figure, or management consultant. You can read about how to be a one-minute manager, how to lead a high-performing team, how to use consensus management, how to imbue your management style with Zen. You can survey thousands of management styles and tricks. You can learn what academic researchers and consulting firms have discovered about management success.
But you won’t find a lot of books about how to be a good employee. That’s because how-to books for employees don’t have much value.
I learned why when I was starting my career. A client asked me to run a training program called “How to Manage your Supervisor.” I was inexperienced and idealistic. I was also hungry for work. Mostly, I believed in the power of candid, rational communication to offset the damage when management relationships go south.
So I developed the program. The results were abysmal.
The moment the participants began describing their trials and anxieties with inept, unthinking, ornery supervisors, I saw I had the wrong people in the classroom. The managers needed the training, not their employees. The managers were in a position to solve these operational problems and communication ruptures, not their employees.
The only successful aspect of the entire program was the attendance; they were turning people away at the door. It confirmed every suspicion I had that managers exert a powerful influence on their employees and yet are unaware of its extent. Managers are either preoccupied with their own needs and anxieties or they’re depending on their reflexes and “natural style” rather than a deliberate approach to their obligations. They are simply oblivious to how much they matter.
An employee doesn’t set the tone, standards, or direction for the way the two of you work. The foundation of this relationship always falls to you. You’re the architect. You’re the one responsible to create the conditions that promote your employees best work. It all boils down to an inescapable truth: If the foundation of the management relationship is solid, it’s because you’re doing something right. If the foundation falters or fails, it’s because you’re doing something wrong. It’s that simple and that difficult.